It’s too bad Democrats wouldn’t enlist a foreigner to deliver their rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s address to Congress. They could have just replayed the speech given 11 days earlier by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister.
It was a passionate appeal to his country to reject its version of Trumpism. Blair said the U.K. must reconsider Brexit, the narrowly won 2016 vote to withdraw from the European Union.
It is a speech worth reading because the parallels between Brexit and Trumpism are profound. At their core, both seek to undermine the big systems that have stabilized the globe and spread prosperity, security, rule of law, democracy and openness after two world wars: the European Union, the global trading system, NAFTA, NATO, the United Nations and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Brexit and Trumpism argue for abandoning or diminishing all of these in favor of an economic nationalism that will – supposedly painlessly – make Britain and America better off.
Playing with these big systems is dangerous, not because they don’t need improving – they do – but because many of the prescriptions – let’s just put up a wall or exit – will make things so much worse for so many more people. The critics are great at pointing out the flaws of these systems, but they always forget to mention the hundreds of millions of people they lifted from poverty to prosperity and the extraordinary 70 years of peace they maintained since the end of World War II.
In their place, the Brexiters and Trumpsters want to return us to a globe of everyone-for-themselves nationalisms that helped to foster two world wars. They speak of leading grand “movements.” Their vow is “rip it, don’t fix it.” As Blair noted, “The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt.”
It’s dangerous nonsense. In the Cold War era, the world was glued together by these global institutions and by the fear and the discipline of two superpowers. In the post-Cold War era the world was glued together by these big global systems and a U.S. hegemon. We’re now in the post-post Cold War world, when U.S. leadership and the glue of these big global systems areneeded more than ever – because the simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change are weakening states everywhere, spawning super-empowered angry people and creating vast zones of disorder.
If we choose at this time to diminish America’s global leadership and these big stabilizing systems – and just put America first, thereby prompting every other country to put its own economic nationalism first – we will be making the gravest mistake we possibly could make.
That was a big part of Blair’s speech. Blair is unpopular in the U.K. – but that’s precisely what liberated him to say what many in British politics know to be true but won’t say: Brexit was a stupid idea, based on an old political fantasy of a minority of conservatives; it was sold with bogus data; and following through on it will make Britain poorer, weaker and more isolated – and Europe more unstable.
“The British pound is down around 12 percent against the euro and 20 percent against the dollar since the Brexit referendum,” he noted. “This is the international financial market’s assessment of our future prosperity: We will be poorer. The price of imported goods in supermarkets is up, and thus so is the cost of living.”
The way Blair described Prime Minister Theresa May’s commitment to executing Brexit – no matter what – sounded just like GOP leaders’ support for Trump’s ideas after they had denounced them as utterly crackpot during the presidential campaign. “Nine months ago,” Blair said of May, “she was telling us that leaving would be bad for the country, its economy, its security and its place in the world. Today, it is apparently a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity' for greatness.”
Blair added: “May says that she wants Britain to be a great, open trading nation. Our first step in this endeavor? To leave the largest free-trade bloc in the world. She wants Britain to be a bridge between the EU and the U.S. Is having no foothold in Europe really the way to do that?
“We are told that it is high time that our capitalism became fairer. How do we start laying the foundation for such a noble cause? By threatening Europe with a move to a low-tax, lightly regulated economy, which is the very antithesis of that cause.”
And what will future historians say about all those immigrants who came to the U.K. and were a key reason for the pro-Brexit vote, Blair asked? “That the migrants were terrible people who threatened the country’s stability? No, they will find that, on the whole, the migrants were well-behaved, worked hard, paid their taxes and were a net economic benefit to the country.”
Blair recalled other bogus arguments that were used by Brexit advocates and that have already evaporated, like the notions that leaving the EU would save Britain some $440 million a week for its national health care service and that there was a danger – most effectively exploited in a fear-inducing poster – that Syrian refugees would overwhelm the U.K. But there was no Syrian refugee flood.
“None of this,” concluded Blair, “ignores the challenges that stoked the anger fueling the Brexit vote: those left behind by globalization; the aftermath of the financial crisis; stagnant incomes for some families; and the pressures posed by big increases in migration, which make perfectly reasonable people anxious and then feel unheard in their anxiety.”
That is true in America, too. Trump is not wrong about everything. We do need to fix our trading relationship with China, which has taken advantage of some of our openness. NATO members should pay their fair share for the alliance. We can’t let in every immigrant who wants to come to America. We do need to rebuild our infrastructure and enact sensible deregulation.
It’s what Trump believes – but is provably wrong – that scares me.
Like that imports from Mexico and China – not robots, software and automation – are the big culprit in taking middle-class jobs; that we are being swamped by immigrants from Mexico, when immigration from Mexico today is really net zero (most migrants are coming from failed states in Central America, which Mexico, the second-largest source of paying tourists to our country, plays a key role in preventing); that climate change is a hoax and we should lower emission rules on coal-fired power plants to restore coal jobs and ignore the long-term health implications and the impact on better-paying clean-power jobs; that the key to restoring middle-class jobs is not by investing in people, health care, infrastructure and lifelong learning but rather by imposing a border tax. And that the EU, NATO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA are just outdated pillars of a global, oppressive “administrative state” that needs deconstructing – rather than pillars of a liberal democratic order that have globalized our values and our rules and our standards to our great benefit.
As Blair said of the EU: “In the long term, this is essentially an alliance of values: liberty, democracy and the rule of law. As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the 21st century? Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question will be benign. Britain, because of its history, alliances and character, has a unique role to play in ensuring that it is.”
So does America. But the spread of those values doesn’t animate Trump. The world is a win-lose real estate market for him. In the short term, he may rack up some wins. But America became as prosperous and secure as it is today by building a world in our image – not just a world where we’re the only winners.